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The (Mis)representation of Enslavement in Historical Literature for Elementary Students

by Timothy Patterson & Jay M. Shuttleworth - 2019

Context: Elementary teachers will make difficult pedagogical choices when selecting materials to support their students’ learning about historical topics. Given the variety of historical books written for their students, certain stories will be emphasized and ultimately legitimated and others will be silenced through absence.

Objective of Study: The objective of this article is to identify and analyze children’s literature spanning a spectrum of theoretical positioning and to interrogate their instructional implications. We investigate narratives and images of enslavement in children’s literature through the question: how is enslavement portrayed in recently published elementary-level (first through sixth grade) literature?

Research Design: This article is a content analysis of 21 recently published elementary-level books that portray enslavement in U.S. history. Unlike previous studies of enslavement in children’s literature, we analyzed both the narrative text and the illustrations in our dataset using methods that ensured interrater reliability. To accomplish this, we developed and tested an analytical tool for understanding the interpretive stances books deploy when they portray difficult moments in history. We deductively categorized textual and visual depictions of enslavement into one of three stances: selective tradition, social conscience, and culturally conscious. The criteria for these stances were established through critical race theory and the broad research tradition on African-American subjects in children’s literature.

Results: Our analysis revealed the presence of all three depictions in children’s literature. Our findings call attention to the need for careful decision-making on the part of elementary teachers, as their decisions around book selection will enact a curriculum that honors particular perspectives of U.S. history. The problematic elements identified in previous studies remain prevalent in modern books for elementary students. However, our findings also suggest teachers will be presented with a more complicated set of options when selecting among historical children’s literature than previously documented by researchers.

Conclusions: While a diversity of interpretive narratives about enslavement is present in elementary-level history books, the invisibility of race in U.S. history remains a powerful feature in current historical resources. Researchers of a number of topics in K–12 education will find utility in the analytical tool developed for this article. Selective tradition, social conscience, and culturally conscious are interpretive frames that can be directed at any number of topics in children’s literature.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 4, 2019, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22613, Date Accessed: 9/19/2021 1:48:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Timothy Patterson
    Temple University
    E-mail Author
    TIMOTHY PATTERSON, Ph.D., is assistant professor of social studies education at Temple University, where he primarily teaches courses in social studies methods and the history of education. His research interests include teacher education in the social studies, particularly related to global education and international professional development. Previous publications include: Patterson, T., & Woyshner, C. (2016). History in other contexts: Pre-service history teachers’ field placements at cultural institutions. The History Teacher, 50(1), 9–31; and Patterson, T. (2015). The transformative power of travel? Four social studies teachers reflect on their international professional development. Theory and Research in Social Education, 43(3), 345–371.
  • Jay Shuttleworth
    Long Island University, Brooklyn
    E-mail Author
    JAY M. SHUTTLEWORTH, Ph. D., is assistant professor of education at Long Island University, Brooklyn. He teaches primarily methodology courses and the social issues of urban education. His research interests include broadening the conceptualization of citizenship education to include responsibilities for sustainable living. Recent publications include: Shuttleworth, J. M. (2015). Teaching the social issues of a sustainable food supply. The Social Studies, 106(4), 159–169; and Hatch, T., Shuttleworth, J. M., Taylor-Jaffee, A., & Marri, A. (2016). Videos, pairs, and peers: What connects theory and practice in teacher education? Teaching and Teacher Education, 59, 274–284.
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